The conflict in Yemen has reached a breaking point, and pushed the “King of the Jungle,” Saudi Arabia, to take military action against Houthi rebels. The early morning of March 26th saw the initiation of Operation Decisive Storm, a campaign led by Saudi Arabia and backed by a coalition of Gulf States to restore President Hadi to power and weaken the Houthis. The campaign has focused on airstrikes of Northern Yemen including the capital city of Sana’a.
The crisis became a major issue as the new Yemeni government failed to reach a stable agreement between splitting factions. Houthi rebels in the north had rejected a deal struck between the new government and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The Houthis are a Shia group known recently for anti-government and anti-American views while the groups insists they are acting to provide safety to Shias from Salafi groups. They are primarily backed by Iran and other Shia groups across the region. Because of this affiliation, Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state, has seen Houthi activity on the south of its border as an attempt for Iran to gain a foothold in the Arabian peninsula.
Saudi Arabia has been fighting a kind of soft war with Iran; a battle for influence over the region. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have expressed their desire to protect Sunni and Shia communities respectively as well as their security. Recent Iran-Saudi Arabian confrontations have been seen in Bahrain with Shia dominant protesters against a Sunni monarchy, Iraq with Shia and Sunni militant groups vying for power, and Syria with aims to install or preserve a loyal regime.
But the conflict in Yemen comes at a very interesting time for both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both of these nations have been fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while quietly funding opposing militant groups in hopes of victory. In terms of political development, Iran is in the middle of high level negotiations, and Saudi Arabia’s newly ascended King Salman is about to prove what kind of leader he can be for the country and the region.
Iran has no incentive to intervene in Yemen, or at least provide strong military support to the Houthi rebels. Iran is far more reliant on good terms with the United States in relations to Iraq and nuclear negotiations. Currently, Iran is near the end of agreeing to terms on nuclear power with the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany). While Saudi Arabia is not part of the process, the United States is coordinating airstrikes with Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Iranian aggression could complicate negotiations. Iran also is favorable of the United States’ action in Iraq, conducting strikes against an extremely anti-Shia ISIS.
King Salman is about to prove what kind of leader he is. Yemen serves as a test to how he is able to handle Shia aggression and militancy so close to home. Should King Salman succeed at repelling the Houthis and re-installing President Hadi to power, Saudi Arabia keeps its influence and sends a message to the rest of the region. Should he fail however, and the Houthis could exploit this weakness to recruit more followers, citing a victory against a superpower of the region as its legitimacy. A loss for King Salman would be embarrassing for him and the state. It would undoubtedly give Iran confidence of its status and security in the region as a result.
Yemen is a strategic spot nonetheless. It sits at the opening of the Red Sea, a major highway for trade between Asia, the Middle East, and the Western world. Oil prices have increased by 6% at the start of the conflict in fear of a disruption of oil flow, but soon fell 5% due to the talks in Iran promising more oil. The country also stands as a possible launch point for extremist groups into Saudi Arabia, and East Africa. It is a cause for concern for Saudi Arabia as its borders are slowly being exposed to instability and a flood of refugees.
Essentially, the Yemeni crisis will remain a crisis as opposed to an all out war between the two superpowers. There is little to no incentive for Iran to respond militarily, especially at this point in time. Both countries have engaged in a war of words, condemning one another. Iran has responded to Saudi aggression with the backing of Russia and China, citing Yemen’s sovereignty being violated as a cause of concern. Saudi Arabia and ally states have rebutted that it is supporting the legitimate government led by President Hadi.
The greatest victim of this crisis is the Yemeni population. Subjected to airstrikes, militant groups, instability, and a lack of a unified political solution, 34 civilians were killed on the first day alone and the numbers could increase. The population is also at risk of Houthi reprisal attacks, attacks from al-Qaeda, and fears of another branch of ISIS becoming a substantial threat. Yemenis are caught in a war for power between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and their personal militant groups.
Saudi Arabia and Iran need to sit down and find common ground in order to save these failed states and prevent exposure to violence and militant groups. The chances of this, however, seem highly unlikely as both countries fear losing influence and power. While the two fight for control of power, civilians are fighting for control of their lives.
Photo Credit: Al Jazeera